Tenants have rights. And while there are reasons your landlord can evict you, they usually can’t do it without a court’s approval.
In fact, you may be able to sue for damages, attorney’s fees and more if they attempt to evict you without it.
Are you worried you might be evicted? Here’s what you should know about the eviction process – and the laws surrounding it.
Can You Be Evicted Without a Court Order?
Eviction law varies by state, but generally speaking, landlords need a court order to evict a tenant from their property.
“Self-help evictions – in which the landlord locks the tenant out, shuts off utilities or takes other steps to remove the tenant personally – are illegal in all or nearly all states,” says Catherine Weiss, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, New Jersey.
Instead, landlords need to give you notice of the eviction. After the appropriate time period set by the state passes, then they can file a civil lawsuit for eviction and, if the court rules in their favor, physically evict you from the property.
The Eviction Process
The exact eviction procedures a landlord must follow depend on where the rental property is located. Generally, though, the process looks something like this:
1. The landlord notifies the tenant they intend to evict them.
“Most states have a framework where the landlord first has to give some kind of notice to the tenants,” says Josh Krefetz, a real estate attorney with Ligris & Associates in Newton, Massachusetts.
“Most” is the key word here, as there are some exceptions to this rule. In Maryland, for example, landlords do not need to provide notice if the tenant is being evicted due to nonpayment of rent. If there are other reasons for their eviction, though, a notification is legally required.
According to Weiss, another 10 states “allow landlords to include a provision in the lease that waives the notice provision.” In these areas, the court summons – which comes later – serves as the notice, she says.
2. The landlord files a civil suit in court.
After you’ve been notified of a pending eviction, you still have time to settle your overdue rents or negotiate with your landlord. Depending on your state, you may have a few days or up to a few weeks.
“My advice to tenants is to get it resolved before a lawsuit is filed,” says Michael Nullman, an attorney with Nason, Yeager, Gerson, Harris & Fumero in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “After that happens, it’s much harder to resolve.”
If the problem is not resolved in the state’s required time frame, the landlord can then file a lawsuit to evict you. When that occurs, you’ll be served court papers, which will note the details of the case, the court it’s been assigned to and the deadline you must respond by.
Responding – or filing an answer with the court – is critical here, Nullman says.
“If the tenant doesn’t respond after being served with a lawsuit, it moves extremely expeditiously,” Nullman says.
3. The court weighs in.
Next, a judge will hear the case. The exact timing for this depends on the state and how backlogged the court is, but it could be anywhere from days to months, according to attorneys.
During the hearing, the landlord will need to prove why you deserve to be evicted.
“The landlord would have to prove whatever they’re alleging,” Krefetz says. “That could be nonpayment of rent, or it could be some other kind of lease violation, such as smoking in a non-smoking building, having unauthorized people living in the apartment, etc.”
If you’re being evicted, attending this hearing is important. In many cases, if you fail to respond or appear in court, the judge will issue a default judgment – meaning the landlord wins automatically.
“The most important thing is not to miss court,” Krefetz says. “Find out when your court date is going to be and make sure you show up. If you don’t show up, you don’t get to present any defense, and the landlord will win automatically.”
4. You have to vacate the property.
If the judge rules in the landlord’s favor, they can get a writ of possession from the local sheriff’s department. You’ll then need to leave the property for good.
“The sheriff will go out and post the writ of possession on the door and give the person 24 hours to vacate,” Nullman says.
What to Do if You’re Being Evicted
If you can, work with your landlord before they have a chance to file an eviction claim in court.
As Krefetz explains, “Oftentimes, a vacancy is not what the landlord wants, so if there’s a way the tenant can work out an agreement with the landlord, that’s always a positive thing.”
If the problem is unpaid rent, seeking rental assistance may be an option. To get started, read this resource from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Then, use this tool to find assistance programs in your area.
If your landlord does file an eviction suit, attorneys say responding to your court summons and appearing on your court date are the most important steps you can take. You may also want to enlist a lawyer of your own to ensure property representation. If you can’t afford one, a local Legal Aid organization may be able to help.
“It’s always best to contact a lawyer if possible,” Weiss says.